BristleBots, hexbug style!

Ted fellow Marvin Hall, a long-time friend of the Learning Studio, was in town this week to participate in the First LEGO competition with a bunch of kids from Jamaica.

They stopped by the Learning Studio, and all his kids are obsessed with a set of robotics kits called Hexbugs. As you know, we've been developing and playing around with BristleBots, and a logical next step took shape...

Radioshack sells these for $8, and other places for even more. But:

Toothbrush $2.40
Pager motor $0.99
3V coin battery $1.00
Total: Less than $5

And of course, pride in having made it yourself: priceless!



Here are some fun photos and a video of our initial attempt to make BristleBots


Cutting vinyl

The latest addition to the Learning Studio growing arsenal of fabrication tools is a desktop vinyl cutter, the adorable Craft Robo. One of the first projects I decided to embark on (after playing around with some geeky papercraft toys, of course), was how to use adhesive-backed vinyl to modify and decorate my laptop.

The initial inspiration came, once again, from Adam Somlai-Fischer, who has a black sticker covering the glowing apple in his laptop that lets light shine through in the shape of his company's logo. I thought it was a brilliant idea to repurpose one corporate identity into another.

So my first attempt was, of course, to make an Exploratorium sticker:

Exploratorium logo sticker
Exploratorium logo sticker (click to enlarge)

There were a few problems with that, though. Mostly, it seemed unsatisfying, to lack oomph in a sense. Mostly this was due to the fact that only a thin line of light came through the outline of the big "O", and that seemed a waste of a perfectly good light source!

Coincidentally, I also became aware of a neat software called LiveBrush, which allows the user to draw smoothly using the mouse, and with very interesting and artistically pleasing brushes. For example, this took about 20 seconds to draw:

Trees drawn in LiveBrush
Trees drawn in LiveBrush (click to enlarge)

The problem was how to turn the raster image that LiveBrush produces into a vector outline in Illustrator, which the vinyl cutter needs in order to know how to cut. After a bit of fiddling with both programs, I devised a series of tracing settings that do the job automatically quite nicely. Here are a couple of my most successful efforts:

Tree branches growing on the LS iMac (click to enlarge)
Tree branches growing on the LS iMac (click to enlarge)
Now the apple is hanging, appropriately, from a tree! (click to enlarge)
Now the apple is hanging, appropriately, from a tree! (click to enlarge)

Next step: figure out a way to streamline the process so that it can become an activity to do with the public, possibly in conjunction with the upcoming Rods and Mods event in February. The idea is for people to bring in their own computers, design a decoration in an easy and intuitive way using LiveBrush, and then cut it out of vinyl: voilà, instant laptop mod!


Designing for Exploration - a collaboration with Stanford University


"Design for Exploration" is a Stanford University course taught in collaboration with the Exploratorium as part of what is hoped to be an ongoing partnership between the two institutions. Stanford professor John Edmark and I have worked with 15 students for the past 10 weeks, introducing them to concepts of inquiry-based science teaching, designing for interactivity, and rapid prototyping. Informed by a constrained palette of materials, and modeling their work on art pieces as well as science exhibits, students found inspiration for prototyping new projects and evolved them through many iterations.

Here are some examples of initial light explorations . Read more at the DfE blog

Mixing Color Crank

From Claire Rosenbaum: In brainstorming for this piece, I watched an Eames video entitled “The Solar Do-Nothing Machine”. Link (note: poor visual resolution. Not original musical score) An aspect of the video depicts shapes which seem to be bobbing in an elliptical pattern because they are rotating form a crankshaft while having their center of gravity suspended from a string. I wanted to make a piece with the same “bubbly” feel.

During the ideation, I realized the rotating shapes do not need to be opaque, but could rather be light gels that overlap to transmit new colors.

Dichroic Spinner

From Jimmy Chion: My light piece was inspired by a attaching a piece of dichroic to a string and dangling it in front of sunlight. Besides being blinded every one in a while, the sunlight reflected off the dichroic was as focused as the sun itself and created a laser-like beam that changed colors depending on the angle it was reflecting at. Spinning the dichroic piece fast enough, I was able to get a laser show in my room. The interesting part was that the spectrum is created was only half the spectrum (i.e. the colors between the two complementary dichroic colors). The light that did pass through the dichroic lens created a expanding and contracting ellipse on the wall that continually changed colors but remained in the same place.

CellStructure Light


From Abby Sturges:
In one of the Exploratorium exhibits, I was inspired by the bent reflective surfaces and the way they concentrated light. While playing around with a different concept, I had spray mounted some silver Mylar to a bendable strip of foam core. I stumbled upoun an interesting reflection from the way the spray mount was shown on the thin Mylar. The result is a reflection resembling a "cell structure". To me, it looked like a snake skin. I was entranced with moving the bendable strip of Mylar to make it look like a growing and shrinking snake.

From this exploration I wanted to create a series of movable reflective strips that users could interact with. Originally, I was playing with these reflections on the ceiling and walls. Not knowing what setting I would present the concept in, I decided to mount the strips on rods and have them project onto a white foam core board. I thought mounting the reflective strips on a rod with an adjustable angle would allow the user to really manipulate the strips by their ends.

What I learned was that mounting the strips on rods discouraged people from really handling the strips. People were much too gentle with the strips and missed out on some of the intended exploration. Plus, having to project onto a white board limited the reflection scale and effect. Additionally, all strip shapes is a bit dull and could be expanded upon.

Next Steps
I am pleased with people's interest in the reflections and their reactions to connecting the reflections to cells or biology. There were some good points that were brought up last class. What other shapes could be formed that build on the concept of cell structure? What if the scale was much larger? What else can I relate this reflection to?

I plan to explore further based on this feedback. My original intention was always to have the reflections larger scale and projecting on the ceiling. I definitely plan to get rid of the mounted posts to allow more interaction with the reflections. First, I would like to explore other shapes. Then I plan to explore the incorporation of related cell structure things...and feedback is welcome!


Keyboard touchscreen and Scratch

Adam Somlai-Fischer, creator of the soon-to-be-ubiquitous Prezi presentation software, recent Osher fellow, and all around great guy, showed us how to simply and quickly hack a cheap USB keyboard to extract the inner pressure-sensitive "film" and turn it into a low-fi touchscreen by taping it to the computer screen. He showed us some simple programs that use the hack written in Processing, but they turned out to be too dense for my programming-impaired brain to satisfactorily modify.

However, having been playing with Scratch lately, I immediately thought it would make a great interface for it, and that it would be super simple to program for it too. A couple of hours later I had put together a simple but satisfying little game I call Going Bananas!

If you want to play with it with the keyboard, just press keys a, s, d, f, g, h, j, k, and l to launch bananas towards the monkey. Don't let the monkey get too hungry, or it will die! Or course, it's much more fun when you can poke at the bananas directly on the screen, so find an old (but not too old!) keyboard, break it open, tape it to the screen, and play it as it was meant to be played!

Learn more about this project